Forming and Rewarding Student Teams

Forming and Rewarding Student Teams

The question of how to allocate incentives, rewards, and bonuses among team members is relevant with respect to many professionals and kinds of institutions. Reward allocation with respect to software engineering is important for at least three reasons:

  1. Teamwork is essential for software development. As a result, conflicts between the contribution to the teamwork and the way in which rewards are shared may intensify .

  2. Management of software development teams and communication among team members are complex issues.

  3. Software developers are usually highly motivated. Their motivation can cause conflicts between personal targets and team goals.

Many people using this book may be in an academic department where team composition and grading are problematic . Thus, the discussion in the continuation of this chapter is about software projects that are developed in teams in the framework of university undergraduate courses, although some results are applicable to practitioners. Specifically, this section focuses on the conceptions of software engineering students of the relationships between reward and cooperation in the context of software development, and it is based on students ways of coping with a conflict between their urge to express personal skills and the unavoidable need to cooperate with their teammates. In order to disassociate the grade issue (and make this more relevant to practitioners ), the discussion is conducted in the context of financial reward allocation offered when working on a software project.

The discussion is based on the following activity, conducted in three stages. (For the full report, see [Hazzan03]).

Activity (Explained after Step 3)

Step 1: Individual Work

  1. Assume that you are a member of a software development team. Your team is told that if the project it is working on is successfully completed on time, the team will receive a bonus. Five options for bonus allocation are outlined in Table 3.1. Explain how each option might influence team cooperation and select the option you prefer.

    Table 3.1: Bonus Allocation Worksheet

    Personal Bonus

    Team Bonus

    How this option may influence teammates cooperation


    (% of the total bonus)

    (% of the total bonus)




















Step 2: Team Work

  1. Each team decides on one option that it prefers.

Step 3: Individual Work ”Reaction to Two Situations

  1. Your team leader tells each team member, separately, that personal performance and achievements are major factors contributing toward promotion. The team members do not know that others have been told the same thing.

    1. How will this affect team collaboration?

    2. As a team member, how would you suggest sharing the bonus now?

    3. How would you behave in such a situation?

  2. Now, your team leader tells each team member, separately, that contribution to teamwork is a major factor contributing toward promotion. The team members do not know the others have been told the same.

    1. How will this affect team collaboration?

    2. As a team member, how would you suggest sharing the bonus now?

    3. How would you behave in such a situation?

Explanation of the Task

Step 1 focuses on students preferences when a neutral situation is described. Step 2 examines how students face possible conflicts between their own preferences and the preferences of their team members. Before proceeding with Step 2, students written responses to Step 1 are collected to ensure that the answers to Step 1 are not changed later.

Step 3 presents the students with two cases. The first addresses a situation in which students have a personal incentive. The second describes a situation in which there is an incentive to contribute to the teamwork. In both cases, personal promotion is conditional. In the first situation, if a student contributes to the teamwork, the student s personal contribution might not be outstanding and thus the student might not be promoted. However, if the student does not contribute to the teamwork, the project may fail and his or her personal contribution might not be relevant. Thus, students are faced with a dilemma whether to contribute to the teamwork or not. In addition, they should decide how they prefer the bonus to be shared in this case.

In the second situation, there is a high incentive to contribute to the teamwork. In this case, it would be logical to contribute to the teamwork. As a result, everyone involved will benefit: the project will be completed on time, and all the team members will get their bonus. The dilemma in this case is faced by team members who in Step 1 preferred that a higher ratio of the total bonus be divided on an individual basis. Such teammates might face the following conflict: on the one hand, they prefer that a higher portion of the total bonus be divided based on personal contribution and, as a result, their contribution to the teamwork might tend to be dominated by their personal-level contributions. On the other hand, this situation (the second of Step 3) encourages teamwork. In other words, teammates might face a dilemma between being dominant (and receiving a higher portion of the total bonus) and contributing to the teamwork (in order to be promoted, as promised by the team leader in this situation).


The different stages of the preceding activity raise many questions, emotions, and dilemmas with respect to software teams. Discuss these issues of software teamwork.

According to the results reported in [Hazzan03], the majority of the students prefer that a small portion of the bonus be allocated based on individual contributions, while the majority of the reward is divided equally among the team members. Specifically, most of the students prefer the option according to which 80 percent of the bonus is distributed equally among team members, and 20 percent is divided according to the personal contributions of each team member.

In what follows , we examine student preferences and tendencies to change their preferences when conditions change (in Step 3). As a basis for this analysis, we focus on data obtained from two classes.

Class A: In the neutral situation (Step 1) and in the individual-based incentive case (Step 3, Question 1), students prefer 80 percent of the bonus to be divided equally among the team members and 20 percent of it to be allocated on a personal basis. The majority of the students preferred the opposite option of bonus allocation when a team-based incentive is involved (Step 3, Question 2).

It was clearly observed that all Class A members either increased or did not change the team bonus when an individual-based incentive was involved, and that all of them increased or did not change the personal bonus when a team-based incentive was introduced.

In the class discussion that took place following the activity, the students in our sample explained that they increased the team bonus when there is an incentive to increase the personal bonus (Step 3, Question 1) because the promotion is conceived as compensation. In other words, they view the promotion as an alternative reward. Thus, knowing that they will be promoted, they tend to be generous with their teammates and increase the team bonus. The fact that they increased the personal bonus when there is an incentive to increase the team bonus (Step 3, Question 2) is explained by the students as follows: on the one hand, the promised promotion encourages them to contribute to the teamwork. Furthermore, students were fully aware of the fact that software development is based on teamwork and that cooperation is essential to this process. On the other hand, the increased individual-based bonus that they suggested in this case will encourage them to excel on the individual level.

Class B: Responses of students from Class B reflect a different picture. No significant preference is predominant in any of the steps. In general, students do not change their preferences when the conditions change. Second, when they do change their preferences, they tend to increase the personal bonus when an individual-based incentive exists. When there is a team-based incentive, Class B students tend to increase the team bonus.


Suggest additional attitudes to the various situations described in the activity. How can you explain them?

This variety of patterns suggests that perhaps different kinds of teams should be evaluated in different ways. There are teams for which the individual-based incentive is better suited, and there are teams for which the team-based incentive is more appropriate. For example, Class A, whose members tend to decrease the personal bonus when there is a personal-based incentive (because the promotion is conceived as compensation), may be characterized as team oriented. However, Class B, whose members tend to increase the personal bonus when an individual-based incentive is present, may be characterized as individual oriented.

Furthermore, some students declare that their preference of bonus allocation is determined by their assessment of their personal skills relative to those of the other team members. Thus, if they know that the other team members have more or less the same personal skills, they would tend to reduce the percentage of the personal portion of the reward. However, if they assess their personal skills as being higher than those of the other team members, they will increase the personal portion of the reward.

We end this section by briefly discussing the issue of forming teams and evaluating student projects.

Forming Student Teams

Should we form teams of students with similar preferences, with different preferences, or according to a specific combination of preferences? Since it was found in Step 1 that a majority of the students in four of the five classes (that participated in the research) chose to allocate at least 80 percent of the reward on a team basis, it might make sense to form a team composed of a majority of such students, balanced by some students who prefer to allocate less than 80 percent on a team basis. The idea behind this suggestion is to create a team in which the majority of its members have similar beliefs regarding teamwork, and to add to it students who are more extreme in their preferences. Thus, extreme individual tendencies are eliminated, and the individuals who have slightly different perspectives will have to adjust, at least partially, their personal preferences with respect to bonus allocation.

Other opinions , such as presented in [Redmond01], suggest that students should form groups, instead of being assigned to a team.

  1. Is there a difference between forming student teams and forming software teams in the industry? Should other criteria be considered ?

  2. Based on the presented data, suggest other approaches to be implemented in the process of forming student teams and in forming software teams in the software industry.

Evaluation of Student Projects

The previously presented observations can also be used to guide the decision on the evaluation policy to be used. Accordingly, teams that tend to cooperate will be rewarded in a more equal manner, and vice versa. The implications of such a method might be that students will be more satisfied with the grading policy (since it is compatible with their belief system) and will tend to invest more efforts in their projects.

The preceding conclusion stands in line with some of the lessons suggested by [Brown95], two of which are relevant to the discussion here:

  • Recognize that different types of teams and teamwork require different types of reward schemes.

  • Realize that individual and team incentives are often complementary, not conflicting, components of your reward strategy.

Section Summary

This section examines the theme of reward allocation. It is based on the reactions of students, whose preferences can be used as a tool in the determination of the grading policy of students software projects. This experiment lends itself to expansion to real-life situations, with real companies offering real financial rewards. Within this broader setting, such a study can be used to determine how and under what conditions a specific method of reward allocation leads to greater team cooperation. Another interesting question to explore is software developers preferences in different countries and cultures.